This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

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Herman Koch’s novel deals with interesting topics, and it’s not a bad novel, I just can’t decide what Koch wanted with all this. (What could the poet have wanted to say? And if he wanted to say that, why didn’t he just go ahead and say it?)

Theoretically – I think – this is a novel about moral dilemmas with some cynical criticism about modern life as a side dish. After a while, though, it seems more like a rather terrifying and morbid story of insanity (something in the same vein as Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy) than a story about moral choices. I’ll get to why this bothers me, but first a bit about the story.

The framework of the novel is a dinner, during which two brothers and their wives – after a whole lot of sidetracks and deliberate avoidance of the topic – finally get to talk about the thing that’s on their mind. The question is this: what, if anything, should they do about the unfortunate situation that on a drunken night out, their kids (two boys of 15) killed a homeless woman who was sheltering in front of a cash machine and thus prevented the kids from being able to withdraw money?

During the conversation, the parents touch upon several serious and highly ambiguous topics. They discuss how much a homeless person’s life is worth compared to the life of an upper middle class boy; who might be accountable for the actions of a couple of underage boys; and whether parents are supposed to be punished for the actions of their children.

All this moralizing is a little bit too direct and not intriguing enough for me – what’s more interesting is the investigation of the motivations of the individual parents, and the question why some of the parents want to keep this event a secret, and why some of them want to come out in the open. And then there’s a kind of solution, which is, again, not too compelling.

And it’s not too compelling because as the story moves on, more and more emphasis is laid on the fact that the narrator, Paul (one of the fathers) suffers from some kind of mental illness, and the moral questions suddenly seem of secondary importance compared to his illness. I have mixed feelings about this. I partly feel that it’s a rather cheap solution to toss up all the big and serious ethical questions and then basically say: “But Paul is sick in the mind, so the questions aren’t even valid.” Partly, though, the depiction of Paul’s mental state is unsettling and terrifying, and being in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes is a truly uncomfortable literary experience (and this I mean positively).

Still – it might have been better (for me definitely) to choose between the ethical tale and the story of an insanity and write only one of them. It would have made for a stronger novel.

The Riders by Tim Winton

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I first read this book back in 2013, around the time I moved here, and I can still recall the creepy feeling I got from it back then. I could all too easily imagine the premise of the story: how the protagonist tries to follow someone’s traces throughout Europe and how he gets increasingly unhinged as a result. I was all the more freaked out by the fact that I knew some of the places mentioned in the novel, and they appeared to me in this book just as unfriendly and unknowable as they appeared to the protagonist.

The protagonist of the novel is Scully, a friendly and mild-mannered nice-guy, who spent the previous years with his wife, Jennifer, and their daughter, Billie moving around Europe in search of a good livelihood. What this really meant was that Scully worked day and night, while his wife – sensitive, artistic and hailing from supposedly aristocratic stock – tried to realize her potential – without any apparent success.

At the beginning of the story, though, it seems that the tiring and frustrating years on the road are almost over, and the family is ready to settle down. They bought their future dream home in Ireland, and the only thing left to do is for Scully to renovate the derelict house while Jennifer and Billie go back to Australia for a short while to tie up the loose ends. Things seem to go well – the house gets nicer by the day, and according to the telegrams, Jennifer and Billie just can’t wait to finish up their Australian business and move into their new home. On the big day, however, only 7-year-old Billie gets off the plane, and she’s unable to express what had happened to her mother. So Scully, half out of his mind with worry, and Billie, locked into a shocked silence, set out to find Jennifer.

Father and daughter visit all the places where Jennifer might be, from Greece through Paris to Amsterdam, and of course their mad trip around Europe is partly an inner journey, and at each step, some kind of “truth” is revealed for Scully: things he might have suspected earlier, had he not fooled himself for years with the idea that despite all the difficulties, his life with his adored Jennifer is basically perfect. During the trip, Scully reaches the edge of his sanity while he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that what he considered to be a happy family life was perhaps something else entirely.

Tim Winton masterfully depicts both Scully’s unsettled and helpless state of mind, and that creepy sensation when everything and everyone – so familiar, trustworthy and friendly earlier – suddenly turns against you. Because this is what happens here: the small Greek island, where Scully used to feel safe and happy, now resembles a prison, not a home; the old friends he contacts in the hope of finding something about Jennifer’s whereabouts pretend they know nothing (or perhaps they really don’t know anything?); and even Jennifer herself – even though she leaves occasional clues, as if she were hoping to be found – behaves in an alien and hostile manner.

And even though at first it seems that the question is what happened to Jennifer, as we get nearer the end, this becomes less and less important: the “real” Jennifer gives way to the idea of Jennifer, that increasingly blurry image Scully tries to find, while not even being sure anymore whether he really wants to find it, or if it’s only his stubborn and desperate obsession with an ideal that urges him to move on and on.

Of course I won’t describe the end of the story. Suffice it to say that this strange novel – a combination of a family drama, a crime story, a thriller, and a philosophical work pondering metaphysical questions – doesn’t end in a soothing way. What it ends with is a sense of unease, a sense of fear induced by the realization how quickly the familiar can become unfamiliar, and how easy it is to get to the edge, in every sense of the word.

The Cryptogram by David Mamet

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I was somewhat surprised by The Cryptogram because Mamet’s plays I’d read or seen so far always contained some humor, and I didn’t find even a grain of humor here – this is a very dark and depressing play.

The play deals with existentialist topics: with the inability to communicate, with the lack of understanding among humans, with alienation, with the ultimate unknowability of other people. Besides this, there’s also a fair bit of philosophizing about who we are, why we exist, and how do we even know we exist. (These topics always fascinate me, and I can read any number of books about them.)

As regards the events in this play: the characters are a mother, her son, and a family friend. During the first act, the three of them spend the evening together, packing things, drinking tea, talking – mostly about little nothings, constantly interrupting one another, circling over and over the same ideas. Every once in a while they try to touch on more serious topics but someone always steers the conversation away – and anyway, it’s hard to conduct any meaningful conversation when the participants are often in different rooms of the house and they can’t hear or understand what the others are saying. In any case, this is supposed to be an average evening at home – the characters are waiting for the father to come home, and meanwhile they are packing some bags because the plan is that the father will take his son on a trip the next day. At the end of the evening, however, they come upon a letter that had been lying around somewhere – in the letter the father says he’s leaving his wife.

In the other two acts, the theme is developed further, we learn the details of the relationships between the characters and the missing father, and the characters wonder whether the father’s departure had already been in the air, whether the family friend had known about it in advance, and why he didn’t say anything if he had.

Besides the impending divorce, the other main theme is the son’s, John’s insomnia, which is not taken seriously by his mother – and this topic is much more prominent than the divorce. John’s been having a hard time falling asleep – he spends his time in bed wondering about life, he thinks he’s hearing voices, and he’s afraid of being alone with himself and his thoughts, which is not surprising, as he struggles with the kinds of thoughts that can be terrifying for not only a 10-year old boy.

The climax of the play is John’s extremely affecting, fragmented-frightened-desperate monologue where he tries to articulate his night-thoughts. In fact, the boy doesn’t want to deliver a monologue – he’s trying to have a conversation with his mother about everything he finds bewildering or confusing, but his mother’s reactions don’t amount to more than a few “well-well” and “aha” scattered here and there.

In John’s monologue there’s everything I mentioned in the second paragraph, and it left me shivering, the way he expresses how absolutely terrifying it can be – simply to exist, and how frustrating and hopeless it is – to try to understand anything or anyone, to try to crack an infinitely complex cryptogram. A cryptogram we make all the more confusing for ourselves – with lies, with interruptions, with lack of attention, with digressions, with deliberate misunderstandings.

I’m not a depressed existentialist in general – I like to think that understanding is possible, and that living forever and ever in our own private world is not the only option we have. But for the characters here, understanding is out of the question. And this is devastating.

Buried Child by Sam Shepard

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Sam Shepard’s plays, as far as I know them, often deal with the questions of family inheritances/curses, and with the idea that progress is impossible. In Shepard’s world, a family is something you can never get out of, something that will keep pulling you back, no matter how hard you try to get away – an institution where change cannot happen and where the same themes and patterns keep recurring for eternity.

This play is no exception. The characters are the members of a dysfunctional, half-ruined family – each of them unable to communicate and unable to understand the others, all of them kept together by an old family secret/curse (a curse they brought upon themselves).

At the beginning of the drama, the old parents and their two adult sons are merrily indulging in deep family misery: they all lack trust in the others; they don’t listen to each other (it’s a telling detail that a significant percentage of their conversations is conducted in shouts as the conversing parties are usually in different rooms); they casually ignore the reality and needs of the others; they lie all the time – just for the hell of it; and they have serious doubts about both their own, and about the others’ sanity.

Then one day the 20-year old grandson shows up with his girlfriend – the prodigal child is ready to reconcile with his family he abandoned long ago.

According to the traditions of literature, the arrival of outsiders usually signifies a major change, so at this point we might start expecting that suddenly all the family will confess their sins, rebuild their lives from scratch, and so on. How surprising then – though probably not in Shepard’s world – that here all these efforts stop halfway, and no major improvements take place.

The outsiders are not outsiders enough, or not strong or dedicated enough to push any major change through.

After all, the prodigal grandson, Vince just wants to find his proper place in the family again, and he works hard to achieve this goal: he even goes so far as to evoke wild horseplay and childhood tricks, hoping that this way his father and grandfather will recognize and accept him again – the fathers, however, remain silent and are unwilling to embrace Vince. (And again, it’s typical: Vince manages to find his way back to his family when he stops trying, and assumes the irresponsible behavior characteristic of his family – then he becomes instantly recognizable.) All in all, Vince is only interested in the big family reunion, so his presence doesn’t really shake the boat.

The other outsider, Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly is a different matter, though – and she’s quite an exciting and unpredictable character. At first glance, Shelly is a stereotypical dumb California chick, accompanying her boyfriend on a family visit without much enthusiasm, thinking that the great reunion will involve roast turkey and apple pie, a caring granny and a gentle grandpa – but when it turns out that things in the family are not exactly as she imagined, she stands up to the challenge and deals with the less than comfortable situation with admirable presence of mind.

Her foreignness is truly foreign, and she has no interest at all in finding her place in the family, so she really acts as a catalyst: because Shelly is a stranger, her presence doesn’t seem to matter all that much, so everyone goes ahead and tells her about deeds and secrets that have been age-old family taboos. Still – Shelly is only one outsider, all alone against five living and hordes of dead family members – there’s no way she can bring about real change on her own.

In the end, I’m not sure if all this is tragic – because Shepard has a bizarre, wicked sense of humor, and it’s just enough for me not to quickly succumb to deep melancholy. Still, if I think about it for a minute – Shepard’s world is a gloomy and hopeless place.